A Smile Is Happiness You’ll Find Right Under Your Nose.

The nose is little appreciated in today’s American culture as an instrument of perception.  There seems to be more concern with its shape and size than in the organ’s role in discriminating the nuances of the environment.

The self-consciousness about our own and others’ body odor is fed constantly today by television, newspaper, and magazine advertisements. We are literally told that we stink – our mouths, our armpits, and our genitals need special products to make them and us socially acceptable.  As a result we have done our best to repress smells in our world.


But, while other cultures value subtle changes in the odor of bodily secretions in diagnosing disease or emotional state Americans tend to underestimate, or at least underuse, the sense of smell.

As a culture we seem to prefer to remain as detached as possible from this sense which has such great power over us.

Being civilized and human means, for one thing, means that our lives are not ruled by smells or is it?

Our nose is the location of an amazing sense that the modern humans lost because they don’t use it anymore.  It’s the biological compass, made of many magnetite (an iron oxide) crystals, located at the base of the nose’s sinus. This organ enables the organism to detect the north.

That’s why the people of the jungle tribes never got lost in the forest.

Technology has given mankind a machine alternative that bests every sense except one — our sense of smell.

The cultural embrace of science and technology as truth has privileged the eyes in a “seeing is believing” understanding of life.  However, the true source of anxiety may be attributed to the fact that odors are invisible, and we seem to have a lot more difficulty categorizing things we cannot see or measure.

This inability to organize and detail smells due to lack of descriptive vocabulary and osmotic sophistication places odor in Mary Douglas’s (1966) realm of danger; we are not quite sure what to do with scents.

When the father of modern science attempted an account of the five senses, it was not merely incidental that as great a mind as Aristotle’s left smell to the last. In his “De Anima” (On the Soul, ca.350 B.C.) he writes “It is less easy to give a definition of the sense of smell…For it is not clear what sort of quality odor is, in the way that it is clear what sort of quality sound or color was.

The sense of smell (or olfaction) is our most primitive sense and is located in the same part of our brain that effects emotions, memory, and creativity. Our sense of smell allows us to identify food, mates, and danger, as well as sensual pleasures like perfume and flowers/nature. Sudden scents, like smelling salts, will jolt the mind.

In order to begin to appreciate the modern history of odor research and how scientists perceived the scents around them, it is worth realizing that not so long ago, the world was a very smelly place indeed.

Humans have a long and complicated history with body odor. In the early days of the U.S., Americans were pretty pungent. After the Civil War, though, things started to change. Breakthroughs in medicine were changing the way people thought about sickness. A scientist named Louis Pasteur discovered that tiny microbes called germs could cause deadly illness, and washing, it turned out, was important for keeping germs at bay.

Throughout the 19th century, America was being settled; all the new buildings going up were built with running water. Cleanliness was seen as very American. Soon, it was typical for everyone to that rarely bathing meant that many people were infested with fleas and lice and getting squeaky clean. Europeans in the Middle Ages, however, wanted nothing to do with bathing. By the 14th century,  it had become a virtue to bathe as little as possible, and Europeans had a reputation as the filthiest, funkiest folks in the world.

In many European cities, today symbols of culture and sophistication, the stench was often unbearable. Imagine the smell of the first cities to house large numbers of people, such as Paris and London, well before sewers and sanitation became commonplace in the second half of the 19th century. London had over 100,000 inhabitants in 1600 and the second census of 1811 put the population of London at over one million for the first time. The combined waste of the population was discarded in the same river that provided drinking water, resulting in outbreaks of disease like cholera.

How did people stand the choking, fetid smell of all those unwashed bodies? They were just accustomed to it. (You know how you can get “used to” a bad smell— say, your reeking socks? Kind of like that.)

In order to begin to appreciate the modern history of odor research and how scientists perceived the scents around them, it is worth realizing that not so long ago, the world was a very smelly place indeed.

Billions and billions of dollars worth of vented bathrooms, house hold and body deodorants, perfumes and other anti smell devices have been developed (and become integral parts of our lives).

As eager consumers of deodorant and re-odorant products, Americans in the 20th century have embodied the ideals of self-control and moral and physical purity which were carried to this country by the Puritans and the Quakers in the 17th and 18th centuries. The association between cleanliness and godliness, nurtured through the 19th century by the public health and sanitary reform movements, linked disease to the stench of cities and the masses.

Use of scent strategy in marketing and advertising exploded in the 1970s. By the 1980s, everything from shampoo to laundry detergent to greeting cards were doused with one scent or another in order to attract consumers.  The market was saturated with preparations beckoning Americans to control various body efluvia, and the fragrance industry provided the means to release the sense of self through enhancement of personal aroma with perfume.

The extensive use of deodorants and the suppression of odor in public places results in a land of olfactory blandness and sameness that would be difficult to duplicate anywhere else in the world.

This blandness makes for undifferentiated spaces and deprives us of richness and variety in our life. It also obscures memories, because smell evokes much deeper memories than either vision or sound.

No doubt about it, the smells that surround us affect our well-being throughout our lives.

Finally, history has made a full turn and the danger of social odors are again acknowledged. The threat of environmental degradation has heightened consumer awareness of the harmful effects of technological progress. No longer can we tolerate the simple masking of toxins and pollution with perfume and “lemon fresh scent.”

The very fragrances that are supposed to combat the ils and evil of the environment by making our immediate surroundings pleasant smelling are in fact making people sick.  Environmental Illness, named the disease of the 20th century (Lamb1989), is the catchall category that includes reactions to the varied allergy-provoking chemicals (and smells) in our environment.

The resurgence of interest in the environment due to the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day may have sparked a change in marketing toward the unscenting of all the products that were scented in the 1970’s.

It was not too long ago we used solvents to clean and deodorize the interior of buildings. Today many solvents have been removed from cleaning and deodorizing products. One reason, there is an increasing numbers of people that became allergic to chemical cleaners and deodorizers. A persons’ response is usually shown as an allergic reaction to a product. However, when nighttime janitors and building service employees clean an office, the person occupying the suite is unaware of the chemicals used to clean an office. They may not know that their allergic reaction is caused by a cleaning compound.

Research by the California Department of Health estimates that up to 34% of Americans report symptoms of chemical sensitivity. Of this number up to 80% also have chronic fatigue syndrome; 65% have fibromyalgia, and over 85% have digestive and immune disorders.

And according to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, 95 percent of chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum. It is believed chemical manufacturers can add synthetic fragrances without revealing what the fragrances are or how they affect humans.

Surprisingly ;-), some cleaning and odor counteractant products do not do what they are advertised to do. Some of this dilemma has to do with chemistry.

In more recent times, scented candles have bombarded the market claiming remedial benefits on mood and cognition. And in institutions for medical practice in clinical aromatherapy can be found in places around the world. But while the interest in aromatherapy has heightened over the years, so has the skepticism surrounding the practice

Product claims to alter health or provide cures have only contributed to the cynicism. Though, individually, a product’s capability to enhance a person’s state or mood is debatable, the fundamental theory linking mood to distinct scents is in fact a viable speculation. Underneath the commercialized hype lies scientific data supporting a correlation between scents and mood.

A number of recent studies relating to the topic imply the presence of a link and further investigate the olfactory sense and its specific stimulation in the brain.

Scents used in the appropriate settings can sway your purchasing interest and your perception of the quality of a product. For example, an odor that is perceived as consistent with the a product concept, like a floral scent with women’s sleepwear, will increase the perceived value of the sleepwear and the price that consumers are willing to pay for it.

“It’s an alternate route to the brain,” explains Rochelle Small, who runs the chemical senses program at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders in Bethesda, Maryland.

When you smell something, it immediately triggers the amygdala and hippocampus. The interplay between those two allow you to remember a smell and the emotions associated with it, and in essence cause the brain to replay the same feelings you had the first time you smelled it — and every time you’ve remembered it since then (memories are complicated, ever-changing things).

The real magic happens the first time you smell something. The amygdala responds to pleasant and unpleasant smells, and if you smell something bad, it releases stress chemicals into the hippocampus and frontal cortex. This alters the way the you perceive and remember the smell.

Humans are able to distinguish over 10,000 different odor molecules. We are surrounded by odorant molecules that emanate from trees, flowers, earth, animals, food, industrial activity, bacterial decomposition, other humans. Yet when we want to describe these myriad odors, we often resort to crude analogies: something smells like a rose, like sweat, or like ammonia.

When inhaled, these odor molecules travel into the nose and interact with odor receptors. The odor receptors then transmit the information to the olfactory bulb, which is located in the brain’s limbic system. The limbic system also controls memory and emotions, and is connected to the pituitary gland and hypothalamus area that controls the release of hormones that affect our appetite, nervous system, body temperature, stress levels, and concentration.

While we tend to think of odor perception being about the chemicals we smell, but there is far more to this process. The chemicals, receptors in the nose and expectations for what we smell all play a crucial role in our perception.

Without the sense of smell, we would only be able to recognize five tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory. About 80% of what we taste is actually due to our sense of smell.

Each of us has a unique set of receptors with which we smell the world. This means that even though we might join a friend shopping to select a new perfume, the same perfume produces a different set of receptor activities in each person. Even if our shoppers come at the smell with identical expectations, the perfume must smell different to each person (unless they are identical twins with identical expectations) – but we never know this.

While we all tend to have fairly similar receptors in our retinas (colorblindness affects only about 8% of men and less than 1% of women), we have remarkably dissimilar receptors in our nose.

The air contains an incalculable number of volatile compounds, which can be detected only by one sense: the smell. There are about 110,000 smells in nature.

Odors are put into two main classifications – good and bad.

Since the olfactory system is located in the brain, the sense of smell is closely tied to memory, mood, stress, and concentration.  Aromas, scents and fragrances, good and bad smells, are all odors or odorants. An odor is a chemical dissolved in air, generally at a very low concentration, which we perceive by the sense of smell or olfaction. Odors are also called “smells,” which can refer to both pleasant and unpleasant odors.  A subliminal scent (an odor at a concentration below the level of conscious detection) won’t make you do something that you don’t want to do, but if you can smell an odor, it can influence you.

Realize that it is exactly the same process when food is involved yet parents can’t understand why their offspring hate some foods they love. Part of the answer is that they don’t share the same complement of olfactory receptors as Mom or Dad.

Because disorders of smell and taste are rarely life threatening, they may not receive close medical attention. Yet, these disorders can be frustrating because they can affect the ability to enjoy food and drink and to appreciate pleasant aromas. They can also interfere with the ability to notice potentially harmful chemicals and gases and thus may have serious consequences.

American noses do not differ much from noses around the world, but there is little real or symbolic significance awarded to the possession of a keen sense of smell in the US.

Anosmia is the loss of one’s sense of smell. The inability to smell can lead to loss of appetite, libido, and depression linked to smell memories. Anosmia is sometimes an early symptom of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are degenerations of systems associated with the Limbic System.

Migraine headaches are a particularly severe form of headache which can be triggered by offensive odors.

A migraine headache occurs when there is an almost ‘excellent storm’ of triggers and reactions. The medical definition of a migraine headache is when blood vessels around the brain enlarge and bind the chemicals being excreted by the nerves surrounding brain’s blood vessels.

In countries around the globe, scented oils have been used as medicines for thousands of years, varying in its therapeutic values and uses. For some people, part of the cure is to lie down, close the eyes, relax, and breathe in fragrances.

This treatment relaxes the body that stops pain signals from disturbing brain nerves. Essential oils like peppermint are known to assist with headache pain; and conjointly, chamomile and lavender are also helpful relaxation fragrances.

For example, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, doctors use fragrance to reduce anxiety during medical testing. Doctors from Duke University Medical Center are treating women in menopause with fragrances to alleviate depression and mood swings. This use of scent to affect mood or behavior is called aromatherapy.

In ancient Egypt, the principles of aromatherapy played a part in the building of towns. The town commissioned by Akhenaton (who is probably more famous for his marriage to Queen Nefertiti), had large spaces dedicated for the burning of herbs to keep the outdoor air fresh while lingering aromatherapy odors migrated in buildings, helping them to get rid of germs.

Like today, body odors were something that ancient Egyptians liked to avoid. They like us connected odors to impurity. Ancient Egypt often used scented oils for their therapeutic effects as different types of medicines, for ailments or diseases.

It is useful for purposes of analysis, to distinguish between three kinds of odour. An odour can be either natural (for example, body odour), manufactured (for example, perfume), or symbolic (for example, the belief that each race has a distinct odour – a scientifically untenable proposition).

Using essential oils are not the same as using household sprays that freshen a room or house. Essential oils are far less offensive since typically those air freshener types of smells will make headaches worse. 

“…that smell-world-so vivid, so real! It was like a visit to another world, a world of pure perception, rich, alive, self-sufficient, and full…I see now what we give up in being civilized and human.”

Pamela Dalton and her collaborators at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia (Dalton et al, 1997 were interested in the relationship between odors and health. A number of researchers had observed that people believe that bad odors are associated with illness.

This is a very old idea. Known as miasma, it is the idea that foul smelling vapors spread disease and was popular in the middle ages. In fact, the art of perfumery arose to combat this problem in Europe. Even though we have far more sophisticated and scientifically valid theories of illness, many people still feel malodorous environments are dangerous.

But, odors themselves are not cause of disease they can produce a variety of discomforts including “lowered appetite for food, lowered water consupmtion, impaired respiration, functional nausea and vomiting, insomnia, and mental perturbation.  With this in mind odor pollution has a great potential to affect physical well-being and it is not surprising that it was historically linked to disease.

The elimination of body odor from bathing is relatively short lived, since perspiration and the elimination of bodily wastes is an inevitable part of living as a human being.  The peculiarity of American preoccupation with body odor, therefore, cannot be attributed to the obsession with bathing alone.

A major new study shows that a pregnant mother’s diet not only sensitizes the fetus to those smells and flavors, but physically changes the brain directly impacting what the infant eats and drinks in the future.

Josephine Todrank PhD said that what an expectant mother chooses to eat and drink has long-term effects — for better or worse — on her child’s sensory anatomy as well his or her odor memory and food preferences in the future.”

“Many diseases plaguing society involve excess consumption or avoidance of certain kinds of foods,” said Restrepo, a professor of cell and developmental biology. “Understanding the factors that determine choice and ingestion, particularly the early factors, is important in designing strategies to enhance the health of the infant, child, and adult.”

And, if ecologists are correct impending water shortages could well force significant change in the American tolerance of body odor during the next century.

Perhaps with such an event we would become reacquainted with the subtle change in the smell of the body due to such things as illness or emotional state.

It should be clear by now that for reasons of genetics, personal history, and the expectations that one person’s opinion is not enough to make a decision about whether a fragrance is good or bad. Nor is it enough to have the person sitting next to you “really like” the fragrance too. Because responses to fragrances can be so individualized.

We may describe our “mental” lives to others but our thoughts, our memories and senses are quite physical in their true nature. They arise from the physical world via, light, molecules, or force (e.g. touch and hearing) and remain physical as they alter chemicals in our brain that, in turn, alter the richly interconnected tapestry of our thinking.

The perception that the sufferers of Environmental Illness may be the modern day equivalents of coal miners’ canaries warning us that the world is becoming an increasingly poisonous place to live has the potential to change the role of smell in the American experience of self and the environment.

Let’s be nosy and find out some more about the nose.   The nose has the potential to enhance our perception of our environment, far beyond the end for which it is used in America today.

Live and Learn. We All Do.

Thanks for reading. Please pass this on to someone who means something to you.

Please don’t forget to leave a comment.

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About julia29

Hi. My name is Julia El-Haj. I am a Hall of Fame Athlete, an MBA, Professional Certified Marketer, Certified Youth Fitness Trainer, a Specialist in Sports Nutrition and a licensed Real Estate agent. I gave up my "seat at the table" to be home with my 3 children because that's where I was needed most. I blog about everything with Wellness in mind.
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